Thomas Frey: Will the convergence of search technology and RFID chips improve our lives or forever put us in a fishbowl for all to see?
A few days ago my glasses disappeared. Over the years my long range eyesight has grown progressively worse and while I need the glasses for seeing things in the distance, my short range vision is still nearly perfect. For this reason I never wear glasses while working on the computer or watching television, and I was somewhere between my computer and the television when the glasses pulled a socks-in-the-dryer routine and magically vanished.
Now, several days later, I’m conjuring up thoughts of a sinister KGB plot to mess with my head as the lost glasses continue to be one of my life’s great mysteries.
The thought occurred to me that if I was looking for something online, I would simply turn to a search engine, type in a few words, and on a good day I would find what I was looking for. But we have no search engines for the physical world. At least not just yet.
Search technology experts have been concentrating on developing algorithms for finding digital information in what we know and understand as today’s version of digital information. However, bright technologists in the future will have a much different appreciation of what constitutes information as every physical object is reduced to its digital attributes.
I recently read a book titled “Spychips” where Harvard authors Katharine Albrecht and Liz McIntyre discuss the emerging problems that will be associated with RFID chips. RFID chips are the tiny signal-emitting chips that are being added to products in the marketplace to enable businesses to monitor product movement from the manufacturer, to the distribution center, to the store shelves, and beyond.
The Spychips author’s thinking is that eventually all physical products that we buy will have imbedded RFID tags and this in turn will lead to the ultimate invasion of privacy as governments and other organizations will be able to track our every movement, at every moment, of every day.
While they did a good job of exploring the potentially evil side of this technology, they spent far less time on describing the overall usefulness and positive side of advancing the science. More on this a bit later.
Personally, I wish I had an RFID chip on my glasses, and that I would be able to somehow walk up to my computer and say “Hey good friend, where are my glasses?” But the Spychip ladies prefer to dwell on the sinister people sitting in back rooms asking questions like “Why did Cheryl Jones drive to the blue house on Elm Street while she was supposed to be at work?”
To put this in perspective, there is a downside to all new technology, and every piece of technology we invent can be used for evil instead of good. As an example, I can use a book to kill someone by repeatedly hitting them over the head with it. But I’m really not in favor of banning books just because that potential exists.
While I do share concerns for the potential misuse of RFID technology, I’m much more inclined to think that the problems simply create additional opportunities for solving the problems, rather than thinking that our only option is to reach for the “kill switch”.
History has shown that whenever there has been an attempt to ban or eliminate a technology, it only delays the development. The drive for creation is relentless and inevitable. Sooner or later someone else will step up to the challenge and work on creating an even better, faster, cheaper version of the technology.
Its important to understand that RFID technology is only an interim step. As I had mentioned earlier, we will eventually be able to use search engines to find any physical objects.